At this year’s Hay Festival, I was fortunate enough to hear a talk by the geographer, Nicholas Crane. He spoke about his latest book ‘The Making of the British Landscape’ which describes the development of our islands over the last 20,000 years.
During his presentation, he introduced a word that was new to me - ‘Topophilia’ (‘Topos’, meaning 'place' and ‘Philia', meaning 'love of’). He explained that we're all topophiliacs. The human race, it seems, has a predisposition to attach significance or meaning to places.
This can be traced back to our ancestors who held special events, rituals or ceremonies at striking features in the landscape; an unusual rocky outcrop, a prominent hill or a natural clearing. Places would become special because of certain circumstances, because there was abundant food, or a ford in a river or a place where natural resources were readily available. Also, places where significant events such as a battle, a rendezvous, or a celebration had occurred might also acquire special meaning.
An architects interest in place is manifold. At this point, it is worth noting that ‘architecture’ isn’t just about buildings. The broader term ‘place’ is more fitting in many ways, as it can encompass anything from a chair to a home, to a town. But what is evident is that places don’t become special simply because we say so, they become special because of some association or meaning that is important to us. A beautiful place is not necessarily a special place.
Architecture is interesting, but by itself, it means nothing.
On the one hand, this makes life difficult for an architect who sets out to design a special place, as it is up to the users of the place to give it meaning and thereby make it special. On the other hand, it can be liberating since any place can become a special place, subject to what it means to us.
Of the places in our lives that are important to us, there are, perhaps, two that are more important than any others; our home and our town.
The phrase 'making a house a home' refers to the process we go through in making the place where we live, special. This process includes the way we decorate our house and how we show off the souvenirs of our lives. Both of these things reveal who we are, to ourselves, our family and our friends. The process also includes the simple act of living, of dwelling. The day to day things that happen; going to school, having supper, throwing a party. The relationships which grow; husband and wife, parent and child.
Not all houses truly become homes. A house might be stunning and perfectly functional, but we have work to do to make it ours. Giving meaning to a place takes effort. Ultimately we know that we have been successful when we feel a deep sense of belonging to the place.
To dwell is to belong to a given place.
Similar things can be said about the town where we live. We may have chosen to live in a place because we sensed it was a nice place or a beautiful place but to achieve a sense of belonging, we must engage with it in some way. This is what will make the place special to us.
Involvement in local business, community or institutions is a valuable thing to do. For its own sake but also to provide us with a sense of worth by contributing to making our town a better place.
That's the more subtle, day-to-day side, but now and then there will be an opportunity to make our town better by providing a new building, facility or element of infrastructure. To do something in ‘bricks and mortar’. To change the nature of the place.
A chance to contribute to the physical reality of a place is a chance to leave our mark. An opportunity for us to say 'we did this, against all the odds’. A chance to leave a legacy.
Places are not static, they evolve. And when opportunities arise for evolution, we must seize them. They are opportunities to build community, to provide a sense of belonging, to make our place better. A chance to make our place special. To make it ours.
If you want to live in a special place, you have to contribute towards it.
This article was written by Andy Foster for the September 2017 edition of The Sherborne Times.